The Value of a Good Conversation

“All conflict is the result of a lack of a good conversation”

-Anonymous Irish whiskey salesman

One of the things I’m reminded of during this time of crisis is that we seldom, if ever, know it all. Mountains of information – most of it unclear; numerous opinions – many of which are miss-informed; and multiple predictions – all seeming to lack shared data … certainly support the point that we don’t know it all. Although much of this is understandable during a crisis, all too often we see similar conditions in “normal” business interactions, where parties square off against each other to supposedly conduct meaningful discussions and make important decisions. Some would argue that this is simply conflict, and conflict is good – because it raises questions, opens minds and helps avoid group-think. Indeed, such byproducts of conflict can be positive, but only if conflicting parties have the desire and skill to manage conflict, for everyone. Unfortunately, discussions laden with conflict often result in disengagement or reduced commitment by the conflicting parties. Perhaps a better way to engage in difficult conversations is not through conflict but rather, as the wise Irish whiskey salesman indicated, by having a good conversation. Here are a few simple yet very effective tips for having a good conversation:

How to Have a Good Conversation

  1. Make it about them, not you

The best conversations begin by demonstrating sincere interest in others, and directing the dialogue toward their wants, needs and interests. Being able to connect with or at least appreciate others points of view, as well as the world they are experiencing, go a long way toward having a productive conversation. However, talking endlessly about yourself, tangential topics or petty issues is not only unproductive, it runs the risk of setting back the issue you may be attempting to advance. Good conversations are inclusive and solicit others points of view. Asking good questions, e.g. “what do you know about this issue?”, “what’s the story behind your data?”, “how do you feel about …?”, “do I correctly understand your recommendation is to … ?”, etc., is a sure-fire way to make the conversation about them, not you – which will ultimately resolve or advance any issue or problem.

  1. Listen to Learn

Listening is a skill, and like most skills it requires practice to maintain a high level of performance. Although we spend significant amounts of time in meetings (conversations) supposedly listening, we are often distracted by what is going on around or within us. Such distractions, often unconscious, might be our desire to win, convince others, take over, or just confer what we know regardless of its relevance. To combat those distractions we can adopt a different mindset for conversations, i.e. Listen to Learn.

Listen to Learn can be practiced by delaying judgement and suspending our assumptions (e.g. waiting or asking for more information), going with the flow (e.g. tolerating a bit of group inefficiency or individual deficiency), or just by not talking (e.g. pausing and collecting our thoughts while someone else speaks). In any event, if we enter every conversation with the deliberate intention to learn something, even though we have good reason to “resolve, announce or direct”, chances are we will know more than when we started the conversation; and the ultimate resolution, announcement or direction will be that much more effective.

  1. Do Your Homework

Success of a conversation has as much to do with what you do before the conversation as during the conversation itself. Being clear about your intentions, particularly relating to long term goals and objectives, enables you to break down issues into bite sized segments that people can easily understand, agree or disagree with, thus allowing them to confidently engage with you. Doing your homework also allows you to verify your data and clarify your points of view, so you can organize your thoughts and information in a logical and acceptable sequence, e.g. 1-findings, 2-facts/feelings, 3-assessments/alternatives, 4-conclusions; not the reverse, which can likely disengage others. And finally, doing your homework allows you to gather insights about the people you will be engaging with. Using personal insights wisely enables you to really “connect” with others, which just about guarantees the success of a good conversation.

Surely there are more tips and techniques for having a good conversation. However, start with these and you will quickly ratchet up the quality of your interactions with others.